Egos, publicity stunts: duels in music throughout history

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the greatest composers and performers competed in musical competitions to measure their opponents’ technique and improvisational skills. These duels were mostly judged by educated aristocrats from the nobility and music lovers. If it seems subjectively impossible to decide between two virtuosos in a field like music, this does not prevent the history of music from being full of winners and losers. Overview.

Look VS Merchant

This first duel is actually a confrontation that never happened. Details vary according to multiple sources, but one thing is certain: Bach was chosen as the winner.

In September 1717, a young man Kapellmeister He goes to Dresden. Louis Marchand is also there, considered one of the most virtuoso French musicians of his time. Two exceptional artists at the same time in the same city: the perfect opportunity to organize a small musical duel for the violinist Jean-Baptiste Volumier.

Before the crucial meeting, Bach would discreetly be invited by Volumier to attend a concert by Louis Marchand to gauge the Frenchman’s talents. On the day of the duel, Bach was surprised to learn that his opponent had left Dresden that very morning without any news. Most likely, Marchand, having also discovered the talents of his opponent upstream, decided to walk away to avoid an embarrassing defeat.

Handel VS Porpora (and Scarlatti and Matheson)

London, 1733. The British capital is witnessing a long musical duel. On the one hand, George Frédéric Handel and Royal Academy of Music, under the patronage of King George II of Great Britain. On the other hand, Nicola Porpora, castrato maestro at the beginning of the new Opera of the nobilityfounded and financed by the nobility and led by Frederick, Prince of Wales, with the aim of competing with Handel’s monopoly.

The two entities are at war and all skirmishes are permitted. Porpora even comes to rob Handel’s hired artists. This fierce duel would continue to the death, at least a symbolic death: each of the institutions would collapse almost simultaneously, in 1737. If there is no winner between Handel and Porpora, the public certainly benefited from the one-on-one between the two. reputable businesses.

Long before this London opera war, Handel took part in a more specific musical duel in 1709. His rival is a great musician: Domenico Scarlatti. There is no trace of what was done, but a few details of this confrontation can be found here Memoirs of the Life of the Late George Frederick Handel By John Mainwaring, the first biography of the composer, written in 1760.

The musicians, both aged 24, are said to have taken part in a music competition held at the Palazzo Corsini in Rome at the request of Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni. The duel was held in two parts, on two instruments: the harpsichord, then the organ. If it was difficult to decide between the two musicians during the harpsichord test, Scarlatti would humbly acknowledge Handel’s superiority on the organ.

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Handel’s musical conflicts are mostly peaceful, but his duel with the composer Johann Matheson is more bloody as it involves a sword duel. There is mutual respect and even friendship between the two young composers. But when they fight for the same positions in Lübeck and Hamburg, the inevitable competition begins. The latter appeared at the premiere of the opera on the evening of December 5, 1704. Cleopatra From Matheson to Hamburg.

It is said that Handel refused to give Matheson his place at the harpsichord when he asked to lead Matheson’s work after he finished his stage role. A heated argument quickly escalates and brings Handel and Matheson outside with swords drawn.

Excited by so-called friends, and surrounded by so many spectators, when we left the theatre, Handel and I began a duel in the Place Oies and under the lamp-post, which, by the way, might have been very unfortunate for both of us if we had thanked him. By God, my sword had not broken on the metal button of my enemy’s coat. Nothing untoward therefore happened, and we were soon reconciled through the mediation of the most respectable counsel at Hamburg and the directors of the Opera. », says Matheson in 1740. He avoided drama.

Mozart VS Clementi

The duel between Mozart and Muzio Clementi was not the result of enmity or professional jealousy, but the result of a desire to entertain the emperor Joseph II and his hosts. Mozart, who lived in Vienna since May 1781, was already recognized as the greatest pianist and composer of his time at the age of 25. But in December 1781 a new rival arrived: Muzio Clementi. On December 24, 1781, Mozart was invited to Court by the Emperor to meet and confront the Italian pianist.

Two musicians must choose their pieces and then improvise. After a long impressive musical performance, the emperor cannot decide between the two virtuosos. The lottery is announced and the musicians each leave with half price, i.e. 50 ducats. Clementi is humbled by the result, saying that he has never heard anyone play with such spirit and grace before. Mozart, who was somewhat resentful, will share his sincere opinion with his father in a letter written in January 1782:

Clement plays well in terms of right-handed execution. Its power is in one-third transition. By the way, he doesn’t have a “kreutzer”. (former Austrian currency) feel or taste. In short, it is a simple mechanic. »

MAXXI Classic


5 minutes

Beethoven against the whole world

It is not surprising to learn that Beethoven, as talented a composer and pianist as he was angry, was repeatedly targeted and challenged by musicians he considered almost sworn enemies. Among his many confrontations, three stand out.

The first was a duel in 1792 with the famous Austrian pianist and composer Joseph Gelinek, known as “Abbé” Gelinek. In the memoirs of pianist Karl Czerny, we can read that Gelinek was invited to a private reception to meet a new talented pianist, a certain Ludwig van Beethoven. Gelinek told Cherny’s father that he would make a short work of the young pianist. But a few days later, when the father asked Gelinek about the result of the duel, Gelinek announced his defeat with disappointment: ” This young man must be in league with the devil. »

Van Beethoven


58 min

Beethoven, now regarded as a first-rate pianist in Vienna, again faced a rival. Then comes the duel with Joseph Wölffl in 1799 Allgemeine musicalische Zeitung In Leipzig, on May 15 of the same year:

Beethoven’s playing is extremely bright, but less subtle and sometimes a little messy. He shows himself to be the best in free improvisation. […] Since the death of Mozart, who will always remain non plus ultra (sic) in this work, I have never enjoyed it to the extent that B. did. Wölffl is below him. However, Wolff has a deep musical knowledge and a real talent for composition. It performs seemingly impossible movements with truly amazing lightness, precision and sharpness. Of course, the large structure of his hands is an advantage. […] It is only natural that Wölffl’s modest and pleasant demeanor should be superior to Beethoven’s sometimes arrogant behavior.

The Great Macabre


8 min

It is undoubtedly the duel between Beethoven and Daniel Steibelt that caused the most ink to flow. is considered as less virtuous virtuoso Staybelt was notorious at the time for spreading false rumors, fraud, and stealing money from concert receipts. He is also happy to announce to the general public that Beethoven is a sub-artist and that the latter is afraid of him. After months of bragging, Steibelt finally worked up the courage to challenge Beethoven in May 1800.

The duel takes place in front of an audience of about 100 people in the house of Count Moritz von Fries, patron and great music lover. The evening takes place in three rounds: the first gives way to works chosen by the performer, and the second consists of alternating improvisations on two pianos on themes invented at the time.

The third challenge applies improvisation to the composition of the opponent. More than a decisive victory for Beethoven, this final round was a real embarrassment for Steibelt. As Beethoven gave his rival a new one piano sonata In factory B, op. 22, Steibelt gives a sonata for cello and piano. Not only does Beethoven accept the challenge, he decides to flip the score and turn the whole thing upside down before embarking on nearly 30 minutes of improvisation. Even before Beethoven had finished, Steibelt had already left the room and would not cross paths with Beethoven again.

Family portraits


1 hour 58

Liszt VS Thalberg

Pianist Sigismond Thalberg’s origins are not entirely clear, but he was recognized as one of Europe’s most prominent pianists from his youth. However, there is another pianist who claims to be the greatest virtuoso of the era: Franz Liszt.

The Italian princess Cristina Trivulzio di Belgiojoso then arranged a duel on 31 March 1837 to decide between these two titans of the keyboard. Duel begins with works written by performers: the Divertimento op.18, Musical evenings and a fantasy about God bless the queen. Liszt responds with his words Fun in cavatina ‘I tuoi ofteni palpiti’ Pacini, his transcription Konzertstuck Carl Maria von Weber and God’s blessing in solitude, his issue Poetic and religious harmonies. As a finale, they each play an unpublished piece: Liszt interprets the piece Memoirs of Robert Devil Meyerbeer and Thalberg Fantasy on Themes from Moses, Op. 33 by Rossini.

Classic record of the day


12 min

At the end of this brilliant duel, it is impossible to name the winner. Princess Cristina Trivulzio di Belgiojoso sums up the evening diplomatically: “ Thalberg is the first pianist in the world, Liszt the only pianist ». The writer and music critic Jules Janin also cannot declare one pianist better than another: “Liszt was never more restrained, wiser, more energetic, more passionate; Thalberg had never sung with such passion and elegance […] Finally, Liszt and Thalberg were both declared winners by this brilliant and intelligent assembly. […]. So two winners, not one loser, On April 3, 1837, he wrote in the Journal des Débats.

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